Homeless Advocates Say Changes to System Means It's Harder for First-Time Rough Sleepers to Secure a Bed

Renato says he was sleeping in a tent until last week.

The small Italian man with dark hair, and a black jacket over a brown jumper, is sat with a folder of papers at a homeless day centre, the Mendicity Institution.

A TV behind him blares out the sounds of a game show.

Renato leafs through his documents. He came from Germany to look for work in mid-July and he brought a tent with him, he says. But the rain leaked in, so he tried to get a bed in a homeless hostel.

That started him on a merry-go-round of homeless charities, passed from one to other, given confusing and conflicting advice, he says. “They are playing ping-pong with homeless people.”

Part of the reason why Renato struggled to get a bed may be because of recent changes to who can access homeless services and how.

During lockdown, the one-night-only hostel system of accommodation — which was used to give beds for one night to, among others, people from outside Dublin — was abolished, says Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution.

Since then, anyone who is newly homeless has struggled to be recognised as homeless, she says. Those from outside of Dublin have been locked out.

“We know that one-night-only bookings were not ideal. But I’m not sure if the solution is refusing people accommodation,” says Santoro. “Because that is what is happening now.”

A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) says that its partners in the Dublin Simon Outreach team and the Peter McVerry Trust’s intake team are working hard on the streets “offering accommodation to all rough sleepers.”

“This process can take time and multiple contacts, as some people do not want to engage (for whatever reasons) but the teams persevere with every person working to achieve a successful outcome,” says the spokesperson for the DRHE.

Going in Circles

When Renato arrived from Germany in mid-July, he didn’t have much money. He planned to look for a job right away, he says. (He asked that his surname not be used, in case it put off future employers.)

He pitched a tent by the canal in Cabra. Later, he linked in with Focus Ireland’s drop-in service in Temple Bar.

In late July, the HSE put him in a hotel for two weeks to self-isolate, he says. He got the all-clear, a letter shows.

He thought he’d get a spot in a homeless hostel then.

But staff at Focus Ireland told him to go to Crosscare which was closed, he says. They should have known that, he says. (A spokesperson for Focus Ireland directed questions to the Dublin Simon Community.)

After, he pitched his tent in Phoenix Park for around a week, he says.

In mid-August, an Italian priest paid for him to stay in the Generator Hostel, a tourist hostel in Smithfield, for two weeks, he says.

After that, he was back with his tent in Phoenix Park.

Staff at both Merchant’s Quay and Dublin Simon Community told him that he needed to apply for a PPS number and for that he needed a letter from an employer, he says.

The spokesperson for the DRHE did not directly answer questions about whether a PPS number is required to access emergency accommodation. (In the past, they have said that one is needed for the homeless assessment. )

Rough sleepers don’t have to get a PPS number but “having a PPSN or local connection in Dublin can really help when applying for emergency accommodation”, says the spokesperson for the Dublin Simon Community.

“To obtain a PPSN, an individual must first provide proof of employment or education to the Department of Social Protection,” she says.

Renato says that he dropped into the Mendicity Institution about a month ago to take a shower. He found out about the facilities through another homeless person, he said.

He can’t understand why the other homeless services hadn’t told him that the Mendicity Institution had a shower, he says. He had been washing in the canal at one point, he says.

Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, says if Renato had contacted her from Germany she would not have advised him not to travel to Ireland in July 2020.

But since he was already here and sleeping rough is dangerous and bad for health, she wanted to get him a hostel bed, she says.

She and colleagues phoned the DRHE helpline many times to ask them to assess Renato and put him in a hostel, she says.

Staff at DRHE said that he should go back to Italy, says Santoro — and that he couldn’t access hostels until he had filled out an application for social housing.

First, the Streets?

Santoro says she was also told by DRHE staff in Central Placement Services that the Dublin Simon Community outreach team needed to witness him sleeping outside.

But “the rough sleeper team has months of history with him”, she says.

A spokesperson for the Dublin Simon Community says that their outreach team is “working within the system to try to access accommodation for people by supporting them to complete their applications or through case advocacy”.

People aren’t required to sleep rough to get a place in emergency accommodation, she said. But if they are sleeping rough and Dublin Simon Community outreach team can verify that it can “help expedite an individual’s homeless application”.

The DRHE can provide more details about who is eligible for emergency accommodation, says the Dublin Simon Community spokesperson.

The spokesperson for the DRHE didn’t directly answer that question.

Renato was overwhelmed with confusing and conflicting advice about how to access services, he says.

He no longer trusts the outreach worker, he says. “I don’t trust them,” he says, using Google Translate on his phone. “I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

Still, he continued to liaise with Merchants Quay and Focus Ireland, and Dublin Simon Community and the Mendicity Institution.

A New System

Renato’s story isn’t unique, says Santoro. Many people are told that if they can get a PPS number, they can get a hostel bed. But it’s not true, she says.

“Even if he had a PPS, [the DRHE] would still say, ‘Renato, you don’t have a connection to the local area,’ ” she says.

During the lockdown, the one-night-only hostel system of accommodation – which used to give beds for one night to people from outside Dublin – was abolished, says Santoro.

Some people who were already in the system got longer bookings.

But for those who became homeless since the pandemic — the higher threshold for access to longer-term beds hasn’t changed.

Rough sleepers shouldn’t be tied up in the bureaucracy of social housing applications, gathering documents to prove they qualify before they can get in from the cold, says Santoro.

If someone is sleeping rough they need accommodation immediately as a humanitarian intervention, says Santoro.

Renato does not need nor want to access social housing here, she says. The waiting list is up to 20 years long, or more for some. He doesn’t meet the criteria for it.

“This guy is never going to be living in social housing,” she says. “We will be colonising Mars before that happens.”

On 30 September, Renato lodged a complaint with the DRHE.

On 8 October, after almost three months homeless in Dublin, he was placed in a hostel, a letter shows.

Staff are helpful in the hostel and he’s happy there, he says. But there are nine people in his room, he says.

Zero Not Placed

No one who wanted accommodation was refused from 14 September to 27 September, says a recent DRHE report to councillors on the housing committee. (It’s unclear why those two weeks were singled out.)

Does that mean no-one was refused accommodation on those nights? A spokesperson for the DRHE said: “Yes, the information in the most recent report to Dublin City Councillors is correct.”

But Santoro says that her staff were trying to get rough sleepers into hostels throughout September but were refused.

She was trying to get a bed for a guy from Tipperary who had come to Dublin for medical treatment, and was sleeping in a disused container in the Liberties for months – until last week, she says.

The DRHE said he should go back to Tipperary, says Santoro. Tipperary County Council told her it had no beds, she says.

Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland says that, to her, that report meant there was no-one on the streets who was looking for a bed.

“What that means to me is that everyone who presented got placed,” she says. “There is a need for clarity.”

Eligibility for emergency accommodation should be totally separate from eligibility for social housing, she says.

She wouldn’t like to see a return to the one-night-only system, she says, but a humanitarian response to rough sleeping is a must.

Santoro says that there is a shortage of homeless services in rural counties. “It is the same with Wicklow, Mayo, I’ve spoken to so many of the regional local authorities in the last couple of months.”

People move between towns and cities for different reasons, she says. Perhaps because family life falls apart, or to avoid feeling ashamed of their homelessness.

The system should account for that, she says. “Can we all just agree there are urban centres that people are going to come to and those should be regionally resourced?”

Winter is dangerous for rough sleepers and Covid-19 has heightened the threat, says the spokesperson for the Dublin Simon Community. “We need to find a safe way to fill gaps in the system which are making it harder for people to access emergency accommodation.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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